Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Part One of Our Trip in North India

Dharmsala and Other Points North

I hadn’t seen my parents in a few years and was looking forward to picking them up at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. I called my driver and made sure he wouldn’t be late. Will was in school. I arrived a little before schedule which allowed me to push my way through the crowds loitering outside with their signs, touts, con artists trying to push expensive taxis on unsuspecting tourists and such vermin. I elbowed my way to a spot against the barrier that would give me a good view of the people arriving. You can always tell those who were arriving for the first time, their eyes open wide, looking disconcerted because of the smell (a.k.a.stench) of Mother India.

Of course, their plane from Mumbai was late. But when I finally saw them, I was shocked at how much they had aged. My mum was in a wheel chair and used a cane. She seemed even smaller, more fragile than ever before. My Dad still looked like he always did, just a little grayer, but he seemed more alert, more excited than I’d seen him in a long time. He reminded me of Will when he was looking forward to something. I tried not to cry when I saw them – these last few months had been very difficult for me – I was just so glad to have my family here with me.

I instructed Gopal, my driver, to bring the car around. There was clearly too much luggage to fit us in the car at the same time, so I left them to hire a pre-paid taxi for us, while the luggage would go in my car. We dropped the luggage with Gopal and headed to Gurgaon. My parents were clearly exhausted. I sent all their dirty clothes with my housekeeper who managed to get them to the dhobi-walla same day. They would have to pack for our journey to Chandigarh.

Gopal showed up a little late. We were supposed to leave at 2:30, three hours prior to our train’s departure north. He arrived around 3:00 PM. He then proceeded to drive us all over Delhi for the next 2-1/2 hours, stopping constantly asking people how to get to the station. We missed the train. I contacted the IRTC booking agents around 5;15 explaining the situation and said that our seats had already been given away, but there was a train leaving at 7:15 from Nizamuddhin and another one at 9:45 from old Delhi station.

Now, Gopal had driven us to Nizamuddhin just the day before to listen the Sufis singing Ghazals at the Dargar Mosque, but he had no idea how to get there. We got there with 15 minutes to spare only to find that there was actually no train going to Chandigarh from there. We called Gopal immediately with me screaming “Pickup abhi! Old Delhi Station chele!!!” We all climbed back into the car, threw the luggage back on our laps and headed out in search of the station. I pulled a map out of Delhi. II showed him where Ring Road was and that he needed to “Bia chele piche Delhi Fort”. Simple, huh? It was easy to see that he could not read a map, the constant stopping and asking directions confirmed this. As we were just about to get to the station, he was stopped by a cop for running a red light. He begged with the officer and asked me for money for a bribe. I denied him any help. We had been in that car for over five hours at this point. He gunned the car, racing away from the cop who was chasing him.

Once we got to Old Delhi, I had to purchase new tickets and there was no way to figure out where to get them. I stood in line after line, moving from building to building until I finally found the reserved ticket office. I was told to come back at 8:45 when the tickets would become available. Meanwhile, my parents found Baskin Robbins and were chowing down on ice cream. I was completely stressed out and fervently hoped we’d be able to get four tickets together on the sleeper. I bided my time and was standing first in line at 8:45, elbowing people out of the way, and yelling at others who tried to cut in. No one was getting those tickets before me. I stood in front of the same ticket guy I had spoke to earlier, I explained that my mum was in a wheel chair and my parents were very old so please find us something with easy access. He did a fine job. When we got on the train, we were in one of the first set of bunks, and we were able to close the curtain for privacy. It was very nice. We arrived at some time around 3 AM and our driver was waiting. The hotel looked pretty awful from the outside, but it was serviceable once we got inside. The manager was asleep in a chair waiting for us to arrive. All any of us wanted to do was sleep, and sleep we did.

First, I have to say, we’re not tourists. Let me give you a prime example. We visited Stonehenge when Will was six in 2000. The tour we were on, happened to visit the site on the Summer Solstice. This was also the first year that the Druids were allowed to perform their rites in more than 50 years and it killed me that we had to leave because of the tour director. My parents took off on side visits to castle ruins in Wales because the tour didn’t go there. We’re not the kind of tourists that do things the typical way. We have our own interests and wherever we go we want to delve deeply into those areas.

Chandigarh was very important to my father. Having been designed as an urban planning experiment by Corbusier, an architect that my father has revered for more than 50 years, it was a place he had never expected to visit in his life time. I was glad to offer him the chance. I called the Chandigarh College of Architecture and asked to speak to the head of the school. After a few moments wait, a charming man named XXXX answered. I explained the situation and he welcomed us warmly, giving me his mobile number and the rest of his contact information and said to definitely meet up with him and he’d open the school for us.

Now, I had my own history with Chandigarh. I was there in 1977 and all the buildings were open to us. Because of security issues (thanks Osama), my father couldn’t climb to the top of the Secretariat to survey the entire grid as I’d seen it over 30 years ago. Instead, there was high chain link fences and barbed wire everywhere. Our guide, a very nice young man named Santosh, convinced the surly security guard to let us up into a parking lot that at least got us close to the Secretariat and the High Court. We were able to get up close and personal with Corbu’s Hand sculpture, something I didn’t remember from my last trip. The city has grown out quite a bit. Talking with the guide and the driver, land costs more in Chandigarh than it does in Delhi, Gurgaon or Kolkata. Open space is limited and the cutback for land vs. building is substantial. The air seemed much cleaner. The boulevards were wide and clean. Will thought the chicks in Chandigarh were the prettiest in India. I had to concur. So were the men. I have a secret – there’s something about watching a young Sikh man unfurling his turban and combing his hair that just does it for me. When I was hanging around Chandigarh College in ’77, a 3rd year architecture student sat down and started doing just that. I stared at him the entire time. I was fixated. As he was combing out his hair, he looked at me for the first time. I blushed and looked away. When I looked back, he was smiling at me, his eyes shining in the midday sun. This memory is still vivid to me. Returning to the school this many years later, I saw the exact spot where this incident occurred. Of course my father had to tell the dean who found this amusing.

Meeting the Dean was by far a highlight. He gave us access to places we couldn’t have seen, in fact he showed us his office which had Corbu’s desk (well, the one he designed for the space). It had been in storage forever, but he had recently had it pulled out and restored. I loved it. There is something about Corbu’s eye that finds the spirituality between machine and the organic at the same time…the desk seemed like a living thing. You could understand the trees that made this desk were living things – there was something of their life and legacy within the wood… I know. Sounds stupid, but I felt life within it, something you don’t normally experience with a simple piece of furniture.

We visited the students’ workshops and walked around the building. I could have sworn it was bigger when I saw it last time, but they’ve kept the same footprint.

One thing I learned from my sculptor grandfather is that all art succumbs to the fourth dimension – time. The same occurs with architecture. When Corbu designed this school, he never envisioned the electrical load that would be required for computers, let alone high powered CAD systems and large format printers. The chases all over the walls clearly showed the “Indian” way of updating older properties. This is actually not just an Indian way – even the English and most of Europe do the same things to their older buildings, just adding soffits or constructing external chases for wiring and upgraded plumbing… It’s not pretty and takes away from Corbu’s oeuvre.

We have an interesting conversation with the Dean, Dad and me. I was discussing the fact that many Indian architects are in demand overseas because they are trained not only as architects but as structural engineers. He debated that perhaps that’s not the best thing – that having two specialists’ stamps provide two sets of eyes make a stronger building. Maybe so. I understand it from my years as a writer and editor. Two pairs of eyes DO make a difference, but if I had the choice between two people with no experience, one a registered architect from the U.S., and a registered architect from India, I would still hire the Indian because he can design with the structural engineer’s background as part of his knowledge set as well. I would be more concerned with his aesthetics, than whether the building would be stable.

We visited a number of other places, but my favorite was visiting a temple devoted to Shiva.

Overall, Chandigarh was a success.

Next day, we drove to Dharmsala and made our way to the Norbulinka Guest house, recommended to me by a good friend, Sudhir, presently living in the Defence Colony section of Delhi. The drive was nice. Dad took pictures of the farmland, especially of those still working their fields with bullocks or even by hand. He found the architecture interesting and we all watched as the building style changed as we headed up into the hills. As the sky darkened, we headed up very twisty roads, some covered in rubble, others with full sized rocks that we had to drive around. There were very few fences blocking anything from running off the road, no sidewalks to speak of and plenty of people walking up the hillsides with heavy loads of wood and rubble and others coming down after their day uphill. It took forever to find Nobulinka, and it already being dark, made it hard to see much, but we managed to put down our things and head over to the restaurant that was part of the complex just before they closed. It was vegetarian food only (after all, we’re talking a strict Buddhist guest house), but even my Dad managed to find something to eat. It was much colder up in Dharmsala than it had been in Chandigarh, but at least there was heat for my parents, otherwise a whole lot more bitching would have occurred. There was a TV downstairs, but we were all so tired, we immediately all fell asleep after dinner.

Enough for now... I'll updat eyou with the rest of the trip in a few days...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

American Internet Marketing in an Indian Office

Since moving to Gurgaon, I have had challenges with my work. Here are 8 web sites, get all their search engines rankings to #1 and increase traffic 1000-fold. Okay. What did I have to start with? Nothing, old sites with no meta tags, no content, no backlinks, site structures with no usability, no navigation... and on top of that, blacklisting and warnings from authority sites in the industry.

Then it was just one site - let's focus everyone on that site. No, make that two. By the way, we're launching new sites - we need your help. I'm writing content, designing interfaces, building and QC'ing sites on my own (like our own corporate site). I was pulling sites out of my a$$.

I had ideas. Let's make facebook apps. Let's build widgets. Let's use social media.

Every time I meet the powers that be, I'm told I don't know anything. That's just wrong and I know it. Just because something worked five years ago - hey - guess what? It doesn't work that way anymore.

When an Indian company wants to leverage revenue coming from the U.S., it would make sense to speak to an um... American. Perhaps even an American who is known for her marketing expertise in the U.S. marketplace. Perhaps even better, an American who has successfully managed an Indian internet marketing team marketing to the U.S. market.

In my first marketing job I ever had, I had a boss that didn't get it. We sold bleeding edge software training, something called Object-Oriented Software Development. It's the base for just about everything being done in software since 1999. Remember COBOL? That was how life used to be for engineers. Procedural software development was a nightmare. Anyway, getting back to the story, the marketplace was early adopters like aerospace, telecom, medical R&D, pharma, and defense research labs all over the country. We're talking real rocket scientists. People who slam atoms together at Fermi Labs. NASA engineers.

Here's when I knew it was time to leave. I had helped take the company to about four times it size in sales due to a risky integrated branding program that established our little company as the experts against huge multinationals like Lockheed Martin and public companies like Rational Rose. We knew our target market and spoke their language. Lockheed Martin was planning a series of local events showcasing two experts who had written a book about our industry. My boss, the new CEO (who replaced a man I loved), decided he wanted to send a card to all the people in our database in that city a week before each event that said "We hear a couple of important people are coming to visit your city next week." Then when you open it up, it shows a mirror and says "But the only people we feel important are:"

I told him that it was tacky and would offend our target audience. We parted ways a week later. He went ahead and spent a huge amount of money on this project (the mirror was a problem). Mailing it even more. I was right. It did offend. There were write-ups in the tech magazines. The company was a joke. When he continued to do stupid pet tricks, like having an Alexander Graham Bell impersonator at our trade show booth... (sigh.) All the marketing we had done - two years, were undone due him to not understanding that market and respecting what they wanted, how they wanted it, and when.

I think I'm experiencing a bit of deja vu.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I Found A Kindred Spirit Blogger - Another American Expat in Gurgaon!

I found another blogger who's American and lives in Gurgaon. Yay! A lot of what they talk about on their blog is different from mine and I seem to have only gottten my feet wet here while they've really spent some time roaming around Gurgaon and finding the more "Indian" parts of the city... the parts that remind me of Kolkata. It was great reading for me - someone living, but unfamiliar with Gurgaon.

American Expats in India

I left them a comment to introduce them to a couple of groups that I thought they might want to get involved with, that are exclusively useful for Gurgaonites (as we're called I here), and I realized, "Hey, maybe others could use this info, too." My buddy, Sudhir, gave me the first two, the third I found when I live in Kolkata and helped me once I got to Gurgaon, and the last one came from Lambert, someone I met through the third one. :-) Yeah, I know. It's a bit confusing.

The Gurgaonite Connection:

I don't have a lot of love for this group, but they are sometimes useful. Let's say your grandmother is coming to visit from Kansas and you need to find out where in Delhi you can get Slimfast. This tends to be mostly for "ladies who lunch" and their types of "issues", but if you're looking for house staff - don't. Most are overpriced because most of these ladies don't care what things cost (ex. 40,000 rupee salary for a maid in a house with a dishwasher and washer/dryer who doesn't sweep, clean bathrooms or windows, or do the dishes. Doesn't cook either. Also expects a 2,500 rupee uniform cost quarterly along with a 1,000 rupee transportation monthly. Oh, and medical care. Oh and two weeks vacation.) A professional friend of mine, a German guy, said to me, "Can I apply for that job? It's certainly easier than mine."

They can be quite judgmental as well. IMHO, they're the group of expats that are living on western wages here, most of whom have never experienced this lifestyle wherever they're from (think British Raj). I'm sure I'll get flame mail from them for this.

If you're looking for birthday cakes, nice places for tea, suggestions for restaurants to wow the boss, clowns for the kids' birthday party, warnings about shops and servants who cheat you, day care, school reviews, tutors, extra curricular activities for kids, coffee mornings with the gals, this is the place to go.

This group is all Delhi and the NCR Region. I find the people on this list more practical and direct. Much more helpful for those working for rupees and trying to make their way like all the other folk here. Lots of people looking for places to rent, furniture for sale, people recommending staff they're leaving behind that haven't been spoiled by a previous expat employer, vets, doctors, therapists... You can find those on the Gurgaonite group too, mostly massage therapists, though :-) I just feel more connected to this group - it has people looking for spiritual things, literary things, less material things and less of the gala benefit type things.


Internations is an invitation-only group of expats (and the locals that love them) and serves the entire world. Membership is free, but there are fees for different events. Typically once a month we do something, like listening to Sufi Ghazals at the Mosque in Nizamuddhin, or just a meet and greet High Tea, stuff like that. I try to instill a cultural learning component, while my co-ambassador handles the simply social stuff... He's REALLY good at that. I happen to be the current co-ambassador and would be glad to invite you. Simply comment with your email address, and I'll invite you for membership. The membership is world-wide, so wherever you go, there are friends.


This group is much younger, more the backpacker type, roaming the globe, but there are some fabulous locals who host these folks in their homes in the group as well. They typically have ad hoc events that are fabulously fun and everyone is very friendly. It a much more casual affair than InterNations, which feels more "professional networky" in my opinion, but both have their place here. Many people seem to belong to both. Membership again is free, but events usually have a fee or a "Bring Your Own Whatever" call.

There are lots of other groups, but these are the ones I get mail from regularly and they all serve their own purposes. Let me know if there are others that should be added to the list and if you know of other expats in Delhi/Gurgaon,, by all means let me know. I (and others) can learn from their wisdom and experience.

Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Mumbai Terrorism & India's Idea of Security

I am an American woman living and working in India. At the time of the attacks I was in Pathankot, about as close as you can get to Islamabad and still be on Indian soil. There is an Army base there. We had only just arrived by the 6+ hour toy train from Kangra after visiting with Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala and Mcleodganj and had no idea what was going on in Mumbai.

Pathankot is about as far North as you can go in the Punjab, and just about everyone we saw were Sikhs. Traveling with two seniors, one requiring a wheelchair plus a teenager, I asked one of the higher ranking officers if there was a Sikh temple or a langpur nearby. He was surprised that I knew anything about his religion, so he asked me what we were doing in Pathankot. He asked about my family and our situation. He reviewed my work visa and residency permit and helped me find the right line to get us put on the next train to Delhi. He also suggested a decent restaurant with cold beer. :-) We had seen a few newspaper headlines, but no English newspapers were available at the station.

Delhi was on high alert, BUT! (BIG BUT!) as we were leaving the New Delhi train station, my mother noticed that the metal detector was made from regular PVC piping held together with duct tape, with an electrical plug taped to the bottom. It wasn't plugged in.

My son had noticed the same thing while hanging out at the malls in Gurgaon. There are metal detectors at the main entrances, but all the fire doors are left open all the way down into the car garages with no one attending them. Even the security guards at ATMS are armed, but my son noticed that the rifles aren't viable (there were no magazine clips for the bullets, and the rifle barrels were plugged). There's a big show to security, but no one is really minding the store.

When we got home, we turned on the TV and the news was all over the place about the Taj Hotel, Oberoi Trident and the rest of places under siege. I got emails from friends and family begging us to come home right away, but I also noticed that on December 10th, my son's previous high school in Aurora IL went under lockdown due to guns being found in the school. The previous day there was graffiti stating that a bomb go off on 12-10. So tell me... if there any place that is safe?

I think the human condition will always cause strife, in the name of god, in the name of freedom, for so many other baser reasons. Wars and Jihads are simply murder to the sound of trumpets. Live each day like it will be your last. Offer someone even less fortunate a bit of what you need. Show that random act of kindness seeking nothing in return. At least you will feel like you are doing something in making that small world in which you live a better place to be.

R.I.P. Lancelot

We bought him the spiked collar to butch him up a bit...

August 18th, 2008

Lance ? - August 17, 2008

We've had Lance, a creampoint Siamese cat in our lives since 2002. Lance was adopted. When we told him, he didn't take the news well. He was a bitchy, whiny cat who was always mouthing off, as anyone who has ever owned a Siamese cat will know. He was also the most affectionate and loving cat. He would sit on my lap and use my forearm as his pillow. He would sleep each night snuggled up in a ball in William's armpit. He traveled all the way from Chicago with us and lived in Kolkata for a year. He hated change, and certainly did not like Gurgaon at all. He especially hated our servant who at that time was living in our new apartment. Will didn't like him much either. There was a bad vibe to the house - still is, but at that point, we'd only been in the apartment for two months.

Late August 16th, Lance decided to sneak out the door in the evening and wasn't discovered missing until the next morning. We searched the house and then Will went downstairs to see if anyone had seen him. He found Lance slumped over having been attacked by a stray dog. Will raced back upstairs with the broken bundle of fur covered in blood. Two people in the elevator asked us what was wrong. After we told them, they drove us to a nearby vet who said he needed surgery at an animal hospital.

I knew there was no hope, but I thought that somehow, if I tried everything, he'd be okay. We held vigil for him, each of us holding him in our arms until he finally succumbed to his injuries around 3:30 AM Monday morning. As I watched the light leave his eyes, he mewed two more times, and then it was over.

After he died, we wrapped him in a sari and took him back to the animal hospital. They also have an animal shelter there. He is buried in their Garden of Eternal Dreams, where he is surrounded by dragonflies (his favorite snack), peacocks on mended wings, rabbits, donkeys, cows and other cats and dogs. While we were waiting during his operation, a German woman, a volunteer, stayed around his giving us puppies to hold and showed us around the place. It really is a wonder that a place like this exists, especially in India where the concept of pets is completely different. It's a good place for him. We miss him so very much.

Farewell, Lance, our little soldier, our intensely beautiful blue eyed angel, our deeply affectionate companion. You are still, even four months later, so very, very missed.